The Pentagon might be reaching into its bag of old tricks to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

Don’t worry. As taxpayer watchdogs, we’ve got its number. We’ve spent decades tracking defense spending. Some might wonder if we ever get tired of howling at the moon. Not a chance. History shows our bite matches our bark.

As stewards of the public purse, with nearly a century of combined public service under our belts, we’re driven by our patriotic duty to strengthen military readiness, support our troops and uphold the public trust. In a post-pandemic recovery, our pursuits to fix financial shenanigans and sow fiscal discipline into the defense budget are more important than ever.

Without question, the Pentagon would love for appropriators to stick their heads in the sands of pandemic spending.

We speak from experience. Years ago, as a first-term Republican senator and erstwhile Pentagon systems analyst, respectively, we managed to poke a hole in the worst-kept secret in Washington. The defense budget was front-end loaded and back-end bloated, burying cost overruns and effectiveness underruns in a thicket of procurement processes, mollycoddled by Congress.

At the time, President Ronald Reagan was marshaling support to build up the U.S. military as the Cold War gripped the nation’s psyche. To the shock of the establishment, we threw cold water on the assumption that Congress should just say "yes,” and then “rip open the national money sack at both ends to pay for this stuff,” in the words of the Pentagon’s legendary truth-teller Ernie Fitzgerald.

Defense spending became gamesmanship. Think hide-and-seek versus Whac-A-Mole. The Pentagon proposed shiny bells and whistles for must-have weapons systems. Congress made futile efforts to scale back spending on small-ball military assets. The Pentagon deployed political engineering to dole out lucrative projects among legislative districts. The gimmick left taxpayers holding a bag of deficit spending as far as the eye could see.

A web of defense contractors, military hawks, and bureaucratic power brokers ignored technological boondoggles and ineffective weaponry. Blinded by ideology and allegiance to a glorified arsenal, defense procurement plans piled up out of sight, out of mind. Reforming military spending dogma went against the grain. A culture of go along to get along transcended Congress, the bureaucracy and the top brass, all the way up to the Oval Office.

While we agree unequivocally with the merits of U.S. military strength, unchecked spending doesn’t guarantee efficiency, effectiveness or superiority.

In testimony before a joint hearing of the Senate Budget and Armed Services committees, an author of this commentary, Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, exposed gold-plated weapons systems for what they were: overpriced, underfunded and outdated before completion. They put taxpayers on the hook for untold billions of dollars of wasteful spending. Without accountable fiscal controls to rein in largesse and nip turf wars among the branches of the U.S. armed forces, the congressional-military industrial complex would continue to belly up to the trough, putting military operations, maintenance and readiness at risk.

The Pentagon’s hat trick: underestimating, overpromising and overpaying. Sitting next to a huge stack of spaghetti diagrams distilling the Future Years Defense Program, or FYDP, Mr. Spinney’s two-hour testimony unraveled the fictional defense budget.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a farmer, a Midwestern fiscal conservative and the other author of this commentary, summed it up best: “They were shoveling 10 pounds of manure into a five pound sack.”

A sensitive internal document indicated a $750 billion shortfall in the FYDP. The jig was up.

The hearing on Feb. 25, 1983, took place in the historic caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building on a Friday afternoon. The Pentagon’s top brass, congressional leadership and the Reagan administration counted on getting scant attention for an unknown budget analyst and a farm-state lawmaker. Par for the course, the central planners at the Pentagon underestimated the truth and overestimated the public’s appetite for wasteful spending.

The hearing cooked their golden goose. It led to the 1985 Grassley amendment to freeze defense spending and curb the Reagan defense buildup. Next, Grassley shepherded whistleblower protections into law that have recovered tens of billions of dollars to the federal treasury. Since 1989, Congress has required the Pentagon to furnish its FYDP so lawmakers can approve defense spending with their eyes wide open.

Now we hear the Pentagon may want to resurrect its old tricks by changing a 2018 law requiring them to provide an unclassified version of the FYDP. That’s a bad idea. Clearly, it does not want to declassify the FYDP as mandated by Congress. Remember, the Pentagon is the only federal agency incapable of producing a clean audit, exacerbated by its abysmal track record for overpriced spare parts and everything else it buys. Adding more secrecy would not improve military readiness. It could be a thinly veiled, misguided attempt to restore an unfettered money pipe to the U.S. treasury.

Transparency brings accountability. In an era of unprecedented spending due to the coronavirus pandemic, American taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent and get the national defense they’re paying to get. On the road to economic recovery, America can’t afford to hand over the purse strings to the Pentagon if we ever want to drain the swamp.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is president pro tempore and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a retired analyst for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and author of “Defense Facts of Life: The Plans/Reality Mismatch.”

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